In 1983 at the close of the miners strike two big, bad things vied for my fourteen year old attention: music and politics, and my attention was caught even more when they were entwined in the music of the Clash, Conflict, The Jam, and Billy Bragg. Later when I came to Brecht, Weill and Eisler and later still Tippett and Cardew, alongside the King Blues and Michelle Shocked I knew that this stuff was for me. I didn’t formally study politics. I was interested in the ideas and the theory so I studied sociology and philosophy and my practice was in the Anti-Fascist Action street battles on Remembrance Sunday against the National Front, the Anti-Nazi League demo’s against the fascist bookshop in Sarf London, and in leafleting to disinterested posties and rail workers at 5 in the winter morning. Music was the soundtrack to all of this – the elegies of Walton and Vaughan Williams just as much as the noiseniks of Einsturzende Neubaten and, later, Mogwai and The Hold Steady.
This went hand in hand with a typical student journey from the eighties into a PHD in the nineties to a joint career in anti-racist community work and in universities where I was at times a researcher and a senior lecturer in sociology. I moved away from thinking about music in terms of its ideas but as a vinyl junkie and aficionado of twentieth century avant-garde music, classical, punk and electronica, remained a fan. Perhaps sadly I never lost the politics – the leafleting continued, the meetings interminably continued, things got worse, and then worse again. I never lost the faith that music and left politics could change the world. I still haven’t – as Victor Serge said in far worse times than ours:
‘For my part, I have undergone a little over ten years of various forms of captivity, agitated in seven countries, and written twenty books. I own nothing. On several occasions a Press with a vast circulation has hurled filth at me because I spoke the truth. Behind us lies a victorious revolution gone astray, several abortive attempts at revolution, and massacres in so great a number as to inspire a certain dizziness. And to think that it is not over yet. Let me be done with this digression; those were the only roads possible for us. I have more confidence in mankind and the future than ever before’ (Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1963).
It strikes me, and always has done, that the postmodernist onslaught against science, truth and reason in the social sciences eliminates anything of worth in the discipline. Sociology and the sociological imagination were born of multiple ferments and revolutions – ideological, political and economic. The smoke of Manchester brickworks curled around the flags of the French revolution. In different (and profoundly different political) ways Weber, Durkheim and Marx, born of this blood and strife, sought new social orders, optimistic and future-thinking. If they were Jeremiah’s they never lost the flip side, the vinyl side B. That whatever the horrors and collisions and grating noise of tracks one to six, tracks seven to twelve pointed somewhere else, more ethereal, more beautiful. And the last track was always an elegiac slowie, the close-dancing smooch track. There was something full of grace and truth and grandeur about classical social science that captured me in the same way as Ziggy Stardust did.
Ethnography, committed sociological activism, art and music, ‘high and low’ culture, all stayed with me even when I became academically depressed about the sterility of much of sociology in social terms – that people considered themselves as ‘progressive’ within the university but did very little out there in the world about it. Careerists frustrated me in the sense that their own egos and aspirations went hand in hand with a lack of rigorous study of the classics, a loss of close readings of original texts, the decline of scholarship and committed ethnographies. Those frustrations stay with me but I am also amazingly hopeful about the kinds of critical and thoughtful ideas that emanate from students in classrooms that are already having an impact in their lives and communities even when as Serge says it often feels like ‘midnight in the century’. More than that I still love the excitement of sociological ideas in the same way, that as a sociologist of music now and as someone still attached to the punk and new wave ideals of the early eighties, I still love Half Man Half Biscuit. One day I will conduct a full choral version of the Trumpton Riots while the barricades are thrown up across the streets. In my dreams. But it’s those dreams that classical social science made possible.
Martyn Hudson is a sociologist based in the School of Arts and Cultures at Newcastle University researching music in rural communities. He has a PHD from Brunel University (1997) and has published widely in cultural history and politics. He combines this with political activism as a Third Camp socialist.
Categories: Research Profiles